Good News Starts Here!

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Mark 1:1-8 (John the Baptist Prepares the Way)

INTRODUCTION: Today we begin a new series from the Gospel of Mark. God in his wisdom inspired four different gospel accounts, and each gospel writer brings a different flavor or perspective to bear on Christ’s life. I like to think of Matthew as the theologian. Matthew digs deep into the Old Testament to show how Jesus is the promised Messiah in fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises. Luke is more of a historian. Luke tells us that he investigated all his sources carefully in order to write an orderly account. (Luke 1:1-4) John is more of an evangelist, who wrote his gospel especially “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Of course there is overlap between all these categories. All four gospel writers are theologians, they are all writing historical accounts, and they are all evangelists sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. It is just a matter of emphasis.

Well, if Matthew is a theologian, and Luke is a historian, and John is an evangelist, what about Mark? I like to think of Mark as the journalist. Mark uses simple and direct speech and includes vivid details. He likes to speak of past events as though they were happening right now in the present tense. This gives his accounts the feeling of an “on-the-spot” report. Mark’s gospel hits the ground running and keeps on moving. He skips over the birth of Christ and jumps right into Christ’s life and ministry. There is an urgency in Mark, as if he just can’t wait to get into the story of Jesus’ life and especially Jesus’ death for us on the cross. I wish we would all show the same sense of urgency in wanting to share the gospel of Jesus with others. Mark is widely accepted as the earliest of the gospels. It is certainly the shortest of the gospels, as Mark speeds his way from one story to the next, giving us a birds-eye view of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Mark himself was not one of Jesus’ disciples. We also know him in Scripture as John Mark. John was his Hebrew name, while Mark was his Roman name. (Acts 12:12,25, 15:37) His mother’s name was Mary, and it was at her house where the people gathered to pray for Peter when he was in prison. (Acts 12:12) Mark was the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), and accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first mission trip around A.D. 47. (Acts 12:25) Apparently he left them partway through that trip. Three years later this caused a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, when Barnabas wanted to take Mark on the second trip but Paul refused. As a result Paul joined forces with Silas, and Barnabas and Mark went off on a journey of their own. (Acts 15:36-41) Later on, however, we find Mark ministering with Paul again, so it seems they worked things out. (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24)

Mark also ministered with Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and with Timothy (2 Timothy 4:11). Church history records that he became an interpreter for Peter, and it is likely that Peter was a main source for Mark’s account of Christ’s life. (Papias; cited by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III, xxxix, 15.) Other writings describe Mark as “stump-fingered” (The Anti-Marcionite Prologue; Hipploytus of Rome, Refutation of All Heresies, 7.30.1.), apparently because he had short fingers and small hands. Well, old stumpy-fingers may not have made a great concert pianist, but he wrote a wonderful gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that is where we will turn our attention at this time.

I. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus (1)

The word gospel means “good news,” and Mark starts right off proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Look at verse one: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

Now there are many places where you could “begin” to tell the good news of Jesus Christ. In the gospel of Luke, Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus, both of which are described as “good news.” (Luke 1:19, 2:10) The gospel of Matthew begins a little earlier by placing Jesus in a genealogy stretching from Abraham to David to Jesus. The gospel of John goes back even further, starting even before the creation of the world! (John 1:1-3) Mark chooses to begin his gospel with the start of Jesus’ ministry, as proclaimed by John the Baptist.

Notice that this is “the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ.” We often say the Gospel of Matthew, or the Gospel of Mark, and so on, but what we really mean by that is the Gospel according to Matthew, or the Gospel according to Mark. They are the gospel writers, but the gospel is all about Jesus Christ. It is his gospel. It is the good news about him.

Mark says even more in this opening verse. This is “the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) “The Son of God” – This is one of Mark’s favorite phrases for Jesus. We will see this at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (Mark 1:11, 9:7); we will see it in Jesus’ various encounters with demons (Mark 1:24,34, 3:11, 5:7); we will see it in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 12:6, 11:32); and we will see it again at Jesus’ trial and death (Mark 14:61-62, 15:39). Mark has some good news to share and that good news starts right here, with Jesus Christ the one and only Son of God.

II. John the Baptist prepares the way (2-5)

This was such good news that in the Old Testament God promised to send a messenger first to prepare the way. Look at verses 2-3:

It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — “a voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'” (Mark 1:2-3)

This is actually a combination of three Old Testament scriptures: one from Exodus 23:20, another from Malachi 3:1, and then the third from Isaiah 40:3, which we read earlier in the service today. Mark only mentions Isaiah because that is the main prophecy here, but the Exodus quotation brings to mind God’s deliverance or salvation of Israel from Egypt, and the Malachi quotation brings to mind the great prophet Elijah who was to return before the Messiah came. Taken together, the three quotations show us that the coming of the Messiah proclaimed by a messenger was part of God’s divine plan all along.

Of course, the focus in these prophecies is not so much on the messenger, but on the one who is to come after the messenger. The role of the messenger was simply to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. The messenger’s job was to cry out to the people of Israel, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”

So who was this messenger? Look at verse 4: “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) All four gospels take the Isaiah prophecy of the voice crying in the wilderness and relate it directly to John. Isaiah spoke of a voice calling in the wilderness; John came baptizing and preaching in the desert. Isaiah spoke of one who would prepare the way for the Lord; John came preparing the way for the Messiah. Isaiah said that the messenger would tell the people to prepare the way for the Lord; John preached a message of repentance.

The people were to prepare themselves for the coming of Messiah by submitting themselves to John’s baptism. Now there were other types of baptism that existed in John’s day. For example, when a non-Jewish person wanted to join the Jewish faith, they were required to undergo what was called a “proselyte baptism.” Their conversion to Judaism was sealed by three acts:

    1) the offering of a sacrifice,
    2) circumcision (if male), and
    3) a baptism before three witnesses.

At the baptism the convert confessed his sin and his new faith in the God of Israel. This was a baptism by immersion and was self-administered. John’s baptism was also by immersion, which was familiar to the Jews. The main differences were that it was administered by John rather than self-administered and that Jews and Gentiles alike were commanded to be baptized.

Notice that John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This means that the baptism was a symbol of the people’s repentance and the goal of their repentance was the forgiveness of their sins.

Baptism in the New Testament is always associated with repentance. Later on, Christian baptism takes it a step further and associates baptism with both repentance and faith. When you are baptized as a Christian in Jesus’ name, you are publicly demonstrating repentance from your sins and faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior. John’s baptism was a little different here. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance in preparation for Christ who would bring forgiveness of sins to those who put their faith in him. And so John’s message was the Messiah was coming! The Son of God would soon be here! John told the people to prepare themselves by confessing their sins and being baptized.

How successful was John’s ministry? Look at verse 5: “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” (Mark 1:5) This doesn’t mean that every single individual in the Judean countryside or in Jerusalem came out to John. This is an expression like we use when we say, “The whole town turned out for the event.” It doesn’t mean every single individual, but it does mean many, many people.

And so great crowds came out to John in the desert, confessing their sins and being baptized by him in the Jordan River. John the Baptist was preparing the way for the Lord in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

III. The messenger and his message (6-8)

Verses 6-8 give us some more information about John the messenger. Verse 6 tells us: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1:6) You might wonder, what’s up with that? Why the strange outfit and diet?

Well, John’s clothing marked him off as a prophet, and not just any old prophet. John’s clothing was specifically meant to remind the people of the prophet Elijah. The Old Testament identified Elijah as “a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8) Indeed at John’s birth it was prophesied that “He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)

As far as his diet, locusts aren’t too bad, especially dipped in chocolate. (!) Actually, his diet of locusts and wild honey simply marked him off as a man of the wilderness. Locusts and honey would both be found in the desert, and locusts were one of the few insects that the Israelites were actually allowed to eat. (Leviticus 11:21-22) And I am sure the wild honey made them go down that much easier.

And so John’s clothing and diet emphasize two points for us in particular. John came as a prophet in the wilderness in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and he came in the spirit and power of Elijah as prophesied by Malachi in the Old Testament and the angel Gabriel at John’s birth.

And then verses 7-8 fill us in on the rest of John’s message. We have already seen John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In verses 7-8 we get the rest of the story:

And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8)

John said, “After me will come one more powerful than. After me will come one who is greater than I.” Wait a minute. Greater than John? John was the voice in the wilderness prophesied by Isaiah centuries before. John was the fulfillment of the Elijah prophecies made by Malachi. John was the result of a miraculous birth when the angel Gabriel appeared to his father in the temple and promised him a son even though his wife was barren and they were both well along in years. Gabriel even said about John at that time, “He will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:15) Now John was baptizing and preaching in the wilderness and the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him, confessing their sins. Jesus would later testify about John, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:11) There is no doubt about it. The Scriptures present John as a great man – greater than Abraham, even greater than Moses or Elijah! But now John says, “One greater than me is coming.”

John was like the preview at a movie theater, you know, the green screen that points forward to the actual movie itself. The whole purpose of the trailer is to prepare the way for the movie, to get you excited for the real thing that is coming. The trailer has no purpose apart from the movie, and once the movie comes, who cares about the trailer? Now the analogy breaks down because the movie is not always greater than the trailer – a lot of times the trailer is the best part! – but the movie is supposed to be greater than the trailer. And Jesus would most definitely be greater than John.

And not just greater, but consider how much greater. John says, “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1:7) Shoes and sandals were an important part of Middle East culture, and still are today. Recently a reporter in Iraq threw his shoes at President Bush. Why did he throw his shoes? Because that is considered a great insult in his culture.

Well, to untie another person’s sandals in Jesus’ day was considered such a menial task, that even a slave was not always required to untie his master’s sandals. But John says, “The one coming after me is so much greater than I, that I am not even worthy to do this lowest of all tasks. Compared to him, I am even lower than the lowest of all slaves.” John said, “The one who is coming after me is greater than I am.”

And what will be the distinguishing characteristic of this greater one who is coming? Verse 8: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) John was known for baptizing with water. That is what set him apart and even gave him his name: John the Baptist. The greater one who is coming would be known for a much greater baptism. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John’s baptism was symbolic. Baptism signified a turning away from something old and identifying with something new. In Jewish proselyte baptism, the non-Jewish person turned away from their old life and identified with the Jewish faith. In John’s baptism, the people turned away from their sins and identified with John and his message of repentance in preparation for the one who was to come. In Christian baptism today, we turn away from our old life and identify with Christ into whose name we are baptized.

John said, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) What water baptism symbolizes, Jesus’ baptism by the Holy Spirit actually does. When you put your faith in Christ, you become a new creation. Christ gives you new life – granting you forgiveness of sins and washing you clean by the Holy Spirit.

Some people teach that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a special experience that only some Christians experience after salvation, but I believe the Bible teaches that Jesus baptizes every believer with the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:13) The baptism of the Holy Spirit is the gift of the Spirit that we all receive at salvation, and this is symbolized by our water baptism after we come to Christ. (Acts 2:38)

And so as great as John was, he was only the messenger. Christ was coming, and he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. He is the one more powerful than John, the thongs of whose sandals even John was not worthy to untie. This is the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Good news starts here!

CONCLUSION: What are some things we can apply to our own lives from this passage? First of all, we can learn from Mark’s urgency. Mark couldn’t wait to tell the good news of Jesus to his readers. We need to have the same sense of urgency in our own lives in sharing Christ with other people.

Secondly, John’s message was a message of repentance in preparation for Christ. The same message is true today. How do you prepare the way for Christ in your life? By repentance. You cannot come to Christ without repentance. You cannot come to Christ for salvation without first turning away from your sin. You cannot continue to come to Christ for fellowship without confessing your sin. Do you want Christ active in your life? Then prepare the way! Make straight paths for him. Turn away from the sin in your life, confessing your sin to God and putting your faith in Christ his Son.

And then thirdly, recognize the absolute greatness of Christ. Jesus considered John to be the greatest of all who had ever lived. And yet John was not even worthy to untie Christ’s sandals. John was only the messenger. Jesus is the greater one. Jesus is the only one who can baptize you with the Holy Spirit and forgive your sins. Good news starts here – with Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

© Ray Fowler

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